When it comes to the legislative landscape change is occurring all the time – so much so that it can be hard to keep up. It is perhaps therefore understandable that little attention has been paid to the Legal Services Act since its introduction a decade ago.
The 2007 Act was derived because the government wanted to promote more competition, encourage innovation and transparency, and make access to justice more affordable within the legal sector. With particular concern surrounding access to high-quality, affordable legal services and further promoting competition, the reform brought about a series of new measures designed to bring change to the legal market.
These measures included the creation of ABS (alternative business structure) law firms, for example, which while still highly controlled by licensed bodies such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) were intended to present the public with new and more cost-effective ways to access legal services.
But despite the Act being introduced to effect consumer change – and then justice minister Jonathan Djanogly citing the first ABS licence a “huge milestone” in 2012 – by and large it has all been something of a damp squib.
In part this is because many people don’t know that the legislative movement even took place. In the scheme of things it was hardly a transformational headline-hitter, certainly not when compared to landmark decisions such as the 2017 abolition of employment tribunal fees for example.
With all due respect to the legal industry, it is also a reflection of the fact that the profession isn’t generally renowned for innovative thinking or entrepreneurial instinct – not to mention that many firms saw the movement as a threat to the way they’d always done things.
However, mounting expectations are being placed on HR professionals at a rate never seen before. As a result HR teams' employment law needs are changing and these requirements don’t necessarily lie in congruence with the business models that traditional legal firms always deliver.
Greater commercial acumen will continue to be sought from HR managers and directors, for instance, even if the budgets available to procure employment law advice dwindle. HR teams therefore need responsive access to tools, resources and professional regulated services, without always being restricted by financially-prohibitive pay-as-you-go pricing structures.
With employment tribunals expected to become more commonplace as 2018 unfolds, this cost-effectiveness and ease of budgeting will certainly be welcomed by HR teams who should not feel economically constrained as to when they can approach their legal advisors for support.
There’s also a newfound demand for a more personalised approach to service, so that employment lawyers feel like a genuine extension of the HR team rather than a disparate, arms-length supplier that doesn’t truly understand the nuances of the organisation’s workforce, culture and business objectives.
HR managers and directors therefore need to acknowledge this longstanding yet long-untapped opportunity for progress. The profession is constantly being asked to deliver more, and herein lies the chance for HR and employee relations experts to be recognised as agents of change.
Will the Legal Services Act ever be recognised as one of the most pivotal regulatory changes of modern times? Perhaps not. But does it have the potential to drive down legal costs, safeguard ER budgets, make a commercial difference and upskill HR teams? Absolutely.
Pete Byrne is founder of employment law firm esphr